U.S. Presidential Election Further Exposes Great Divide between Online and Mainstream Media
By John Herrman, New York Times
Breitbart, the website at the center of the self-described alternative online media, is planning to expand in the U.S. and abroad. The site, whose former chairman became the chief executive of Donald Trump’s campaign in August, has been emboldened by the victory of its candidate.
Breitbart was always bullish on Trump’s chances, but the site seems far more certain of something else, as illustrated by a less visible story it published on election night, declaring a different sort of victory: “Breitbart Beats CNN, HuffPo for Total Facebook Engagements for Election Content.”
It was a type of story the site publishes regularly. In August: “Breitbart Jumps to #11 on Facebook for Overall Engagement.” In June: “Breitbart Ranked #1 in the World for Political Social Media; Beats HuffPo by 2 Million.” Late last year: “Breitbart News #6 for Most Comments Among English Facebook Publishers Globally.”
These stories were self-promotional. But the rankings, released on a monthly basis by a company called NewsWhip, which measures activity on social networks, represented a brutal leveling. They were unelaborated lists that ranked outlets in terms that were difficult to dispute — total shares, likes and comments.
A sample ranking of the most-shared sites on Facebook from January had Breitbart at No. 14, just behind ABC and The Washington Post, but before Bleacher Report, Comicbook.com, Yahoo and The Hill. The month before, the site ranked between the BBC and The Guardian, just behind The New York Times, which was at No. 7.
These told, narrowly, the story of reach on a new platform — one that the news industry was still coming to terms with as it redefined the terms of consumption. At the same time, they signaled much broader changes: On social platforms, all media had become marginal; elsewhere, much of the media was in structural collapse.
Growing distribution systems belonged to technology companies and their users. Publishers had become mere guests, their own distribution systems, like printed newspapers, stagnant or shrinking. So a news organization’s ranking in that online world — one in which the importance of legacy was diminished — meant something.
Faith in the importance of social metrics was a common trait among pro-Trump media, and for obvious reasons. They were clear indicators of support, participation and success, though exposed to no methodology. They were relative to other media and, by proxy, to politics.
The pro-Trump media understood that it was an insurgent force in a conversation conducted on social media on an unprecedented scale. It understood that its success could be measured by the extent to which it contributed to the assembled millions carrying out their political reading, watching, sharing, commenting and arguing among family and friends.
David Bozell, president of ForAmerica, a conservative nonprofit group that operates a large Facebook news page, boasted of its social media prowess: “Because of our success, we know there are real voters delivering real-time political activism every day on these platforms. The press and the political class, at their own peril, ignored the signs, which is why so many got President-elect Trump’s victory wrong.”
In an interview in June, Bozell spoke more strategically: “We want people to come to our website, but that’s not what it’s designed to do. It’s Marketing 101: Go to where people are at.”
Much action during the campaign, therefore, was with the tens of millions of Americans who experience media and political campaigns through Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and other social media platforms. Everything else was on the outside, fighting its way in.
The mainstream media was more allergic to this idea because it had more to lose: its business models, and its self-image as arbiter of fact and fiction and as agenda-setter.
Still, major media companies reluctantly adjusted with more open partisanship and clearer motivation, aside from comprehensively describing the world, to challenge the legitimacy of Trump. This coverage crystallized for many in establishing Trump as not just a bad choice but also a threat.
But even this aggressive, oppositional coverage — much of it thorough and hard-won, like stories about Trump’s taxes or his charitable foundation — was delivered with presumptions of trust and common language, and with the privileged expectation of the benefit of the doubt. It was a season of escalating “disqualifying” stories that were processed predictably by receptive audiences and ignored or rationalized by others.
An alternative, oppositional media expects this response and doubles down; a media accustomed to power, or proximity to power, is dumbfounded by it.
For legacy news media operations to behave as outsiders could be invigorating. Treating access as strictly transactional, rather than as some sort of norm, could reduce, or make transparent, its role in the reporting process. To focus solely on holding power to account is as concise a definition of journalism as I can think of.
But these hopes butt up against commercial interests and an instinct for self-preservation. A purely aggressive CNN, for instance, would be a very different operation, less lucrative and probably much smaller.
And the self-identified alternative media of this election was, on the other hand, unembarrassed by its ideology, aggressive not merely in the pursuit of stories but in the election of one candidate and the destruction of another. It was willing to submit to new distribution systems to benefit from them, and openly prioritized this, along with its animating political cause, above all else.
It is telling that nobody quite knows what to ask of Facebook now that the election is over. To rid itself of false news? (How?) To help users cross ideological lines? (In which directions?)
Such questions are asked with an eerily similar presumption: that by merely pointing out the popularity of fake news or misrepresentative content that appeared on the platform during the election, the point is made and will be heeded. This is also visible in the many “what we could have done differently” articles, which contain obvious presumptions of power and control — the belief, held throughout the campaign, by outlets that they, and not the audience, were in charge of the story, or popular perception.
Facebook has remained passive, taking shelter behind claims that it is a tech company rather than a media company. Its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, in a Facebook post Thursday, wrote that “we are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it.” Twitter’s chief, Jack Dorsey, was similarly noncommittal in a series of tweets: “We are one country, and we have one goal: Provide for the common good.”
Bozell, in June, described Facebook as a “marketplace for conservatism,” a suggestion that doubles as an attempt to define that vague distinction between tech and media: Tech creates marketplaces, and everyone else merely participates. It is also a reminder that markets are not neutral, but that it is in their creators’ interest to suggest they are.
To accept marginality as fate was one difficult option for those in the media; to defy it was another. To ignore it, however, was not.
To Learn More:
Rise in Social Media’s Power Reveals Growing Threat to Democracy: Fake News (by Jim Rutenberg, New York Times)
Truth Viewed as Victim, Not Beneficiary, of the Internet (by Farhad Manjoo, New York Times
Next White House Occupant to Inherit Obama’s Social Media Accounts…and all his Followers (by Kevin Freking, Associated Press)
Media Use by American Adults Has Increased by One Hour per Day (by David Bauder, Associated Press)
Twitter Still Trump’s Favorite Tool for Fear Mongering and Character Assassination (by Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman, New York Times)
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